Review of ‘Red-Tails In Love: A Wildlife Drama In Central Park’

Red-Tails In Love: A Wildlife Drama In Central Park
Marie Winn

In Marie Winn's Red-Tails in Love, dedicated birders obsess over a hawk's love life. Predictably, eggs become elements of the unfolding plot. So do flying lessons. But Winn's tale has a twist: these particular raptors often eviscerate their prey — mostly pigeons and rats — on Woody Allen's penthouse patio. The biophobic comedian-director once wrote, "I am two with nature." Now he must clean up entrails.

This book covers several years, as a red-tailed hawk dubbed Pale Male (Smithsonian, November 1995) finds a mate, loses her, finds another, and then... It is a finale that cries out for violins. En route, you cheer on Pale Male and his mates as they struggle to become the first red-tailed hawks to raise young on a building amid Manhattan's honking and fumes.

But this book is also about Central Park's fields, woodlands, ponds, lamp-lined walkways, stone bridges, joggers, Roller-bladers, drug addicts, nannies, dog walkers, soccer players, and the surrounding high-rises. And the book is about the Regulars, a loose band of New Yorkers who make dawn park stops, some of them before work, for a spot of birding.

Bird-watching in Central Park sounds quixotic. But Winn tells us that the 843 acres of mid-Manhattan greenery is actually a birding hot spot. Since 1886, identified bird species in the park have doubled, in 1996 hitting 275, putting it on a list of the 14 best birding spots in the United States, along with Yosemite and the Everglades. Frederick Law Olmsted designed Central Park, says Winn, as a place where urbanites could "enjoy the illusion of wilderness without any of its inconveniences or dangers." But now, with budgets skimpy, the peacocks and rhododendrons are gone and Central Park is turning shaggy. Raccoons and woodchucks and cottontails have moved in. So have butterflies, dragonflies, crickets, turtles and frogs. And the park attracts enough birds to give springtime migration watchers "warbler neck" from gazing upward through binoculars. These days, says Winn, "the binocular band easily outnumbers the criminals in Central Park — at least on a fine day in May." And, she says of Olmsted's ersatz wilderness, "the former fake has begun to turn into the real thing."

Pale Male showed up in Central Park during Winn's first year as a Regular. Winn was not one of the group's Big Guns, or expert birders. She was a duffer. But she was soon making entries in the Register, where the park's birders note interesting sightings, often referencing the number of the nearest lamppost to guide others to the bird. One day, in the Register, a birder noted sighting a young male red-tailed hawk "eating a rat and also swooping a foot above shoveler ducks on the lake." Because this male was oddly pale, he was identifiable as an individual. Soon the birders were snooping on Pale Male's romances, cheering each aerial tryst. Of course, the Regulars had other concerns. There was, for instance, the cutting down of the old tree where Baltimore orioles were nesting. One outraged Regular called the park's horticulture director from her office at Chase Bank, which led to a new park policy: look before you saw. There was the titmouse that was spotted plucking fur for its nest from an obliging raccoon's rump. There was the stampede to see the migrating loon that chose the park's reservoir for a rest stop. There was the sunrise-to-sunset vigil to observe the park's first nesting green herons. But the biggest deal was the red-tailed hawks, nesting on a high ledge of the Fifth Avenue building next to Woody Allen's. Window washers worried the Regulars. They implored Mary Tyler Moore, one of the building's residents, to help keep the workers away from the nest. They fretted when the Disney movie Pocahontas premiered in Central Park, fearing the amplified noise and lights and hoopla would discomfit the hawk family. They set up a telescope on the sidewalk so passersby could view the nesting hawks, by now celebrities. Among the viewers was the actress Glenn Close, who declared, "It's a miracle," the third to make that particular pronouncement. A tourist from Marseilles simply cried, "Incroyable!"

Between the lines, this melodrama about nesting hawks is really about how wildness persists, even amid concrete and glass and jackhammering. It is about a tough town's politesse, giving the winged newcomers space, not getting in their face. And so it is a hopeful book. We learn that even urban sophisticates will trudge into the park in midwinter to put out seeds and suet. As one Regular said of the hawks, "Aren't we lucky to see this?"

Based in Vermont, Richard Wolkomir is a frequent Smithsonian contributor.

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.